MISSOULA — Travel out of Missoula Montana Airport over the Thanksgiving holiday pushed the parking lot to capacity, and the facility is now planning to dust off its overflow plans heading into Christmas.
Activity at the growing airport has nearly returned to pre-pandemic levels and staff predicts that 2022 passenger counts could exceed record years from the past.
“I would expect to see our 2022 passenger numbers exceed 2019, which was a record year for the airport,” Airport director Brian Ellestad said Tuesday. “Nationwide, October finished at 79% of 2019. Missoula once again exceeded the national number and came in at 86% of 2019.”
Ellestad said the airport’s passenger numbers would have been higher if not for a slight reduction in available seats offered by the nation’s top carriers. That reduction comes at a time when the Missoula airport could support a greater number of seats, he said.
Ellestad estimated the seat shortage at around 15% and said it’s likely to linger into next spring.
“There’s a lot of pilot shortages out there and international (travel) has reopened, so there’s that scramble for aircraft,” Ellestad said. “But with that said, we’re seeing wonderful load factors. Flights are pretty much full coming and going. With a reduction of seats, it has been squeezing inventory.”
Airlines are now releasing their summer schedules and for Missoula, things are looking positive. While Delta has yet to set its schedule, United Airlines will be on track for expanded service.
“Chicago is coming back as we expected and for Denver, they increased the seat counts,” Ellestad said. “Alaska made some changes and Allegiant is loading its schedule today.”
While the airport prepares for holiday travel, it’s also placing the finishing touches on Phase 1 of the new passenger terminal. The facility is expected to open next spring ahead of summer travel and with the recently adopted infrastructure bill, the airport will be in good standing to begin Phase 2 sooner than expected.
The bill includes $1 billion annually for new airport terminals and competitive grants through the Department of Transportation.
“We’ll wait to see where those numbers come out and make sure we’re in a good place to collect discretionary funding,” Ellestad said. “We’ll have something designed and on the shelf so we can take advantage of those first grants that come out.”
The airport also is watching Washington, D.C., as it faces the potential of another government shut down. Congress has until Friday to fund the government.
The Missoula airport endured the last government shutdown during the Trump administration and provided support for TSA agents, who worked without pay.
“There will be some government agencies forced to shut down if they don’t extend that effort,” Ellestad said. “We’ll see what the final thing is. Hopefully, they get that figured out and none of our partners will have any hiccups.”